Back in the 1970s when I was in elementary school, kids tried to scare each other with stories of killer bees that would be the death of all of us. Fast forward to now and it’s too clear that we, not bees, are the killers.
On June 17, 50,000 bumblebees were found dead under trees in a Target parking lot in Wilsonville, Oregon. Dead honeybees, lady bugs and other beneficial insects were also discovered, according to the nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Rich Hatfield, a conservation biologist with the Xerces Society, describes the devastating sight of seeing dead bumblebees “literally falling out of the trees.” 150 colonies were wiped out in what Hatfield says is “to our knowledge … one of the largest documented bumble bee deaths in the Western U.S.” One Wilsonville resident, Adria Condon, says that bees have still been crawling around the Target parking lot later in the week: “It’s almost like they’re hanging on trying to get through…. whatever is on there is not good.”
The consequences for the region’s agriculture could be profound as bees are key pollinators of many berry crops and other seed crops in the Willamette Valley.
Investigators have confirmed that the bees died as a “direct result” of a pesticide, Safari. While Safari is said to be “safe” for humans and animals, it is (clearly) lethal for bees and other insects. After residents of another Oregon community, HIllsboro, saw hundreds of bees falling out of trees later in the week, officials have covered trees in protective netting.
Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society explains why Safari has been so deadly for the bees and other insects. This pesticide is not “just a residue on the surface” but actually gets “taken into the plant, comes out in the pollen, in the nectar and it gets handed to bees and other pollinators basically on a platter.” That is, Safari infiltrates the systems of plants and then those of the bees; it is what its manufacturer Valent boasts it to be, “a super-systemic insecticide with quick uptake and knockdown.”
The executive director of the Xerces Society, Scott Hoffman Black, says that the landscaping company made a “huge” mistake and applied the insecticide while the trees in the Target lot were in bloom. He also notes that such an error is not at all uncommon. No wonder that the Xerces Society is working with Oregon lawmakers to ban the use of Safari.
Ironically, both of these massive bee die-offs in Oregon occurred during “National Pollinator Week,” which is supposed to be an event to celebrate the crucial role that bees plays in our ecosystems, John Upton writes on Grist.
A group is organizing a memorial for the thousands of dead bees, in full awareness that they are (as organizer Rozzell Medina writes), “dying in the millions, unnaturally, worldwide” and with “far-reaching effects for humans, who rely on bees to pollinate our crops.”
Bees are equally under threat around the world. In England, a third of all honeybee colonies did not survive the winter due to especially cold temperatures and, in some areas, relentless rainfall. Many bees starved to death in their own hives in a phenomenon called “isolation starvation,” in which a cluster of bees become too cold to move within a hive to where their food is stored.
A few week ago, the European Union voted to suspend the use of three pesticides that have been found to cause serious harm to bees. It is a step that the U.S. urgently urgently to take. As the deaths of so many bee colonies in England suggest, tougher regulations for pesticide use can help to save bees, though they are not the only answer. Given all that bees do for us, we need to do all that we can to help them survive.
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